The Beacon

Blog Tags: Dolphin

Creature Feature: Beluga Whale

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Belugas are the only whales that can make facial expressions ©NOAA

Think that you could survive in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean? Probably not, but beluga whales have certainly found a way.

The beluga whale, sometimes known as the white whale, is an unusual-looking marine mammal. A typical individual can be 13-20 feet long, and with its white coloring and distinctively lumpy head, the beluga is one of a kind. You can find belugas way up north in the waters of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia.

Beluga whales have many adaptations that allow them to live in extremely cold waters. They don’t have a dorsal fin, which is believed to help them survive under ice. They have round bodies and a thick layer of blubber to keep out the cold.

So what’s with that protruding lump on the beluga’s head? It’s called a melon, and other marine mammals like dolphins and porpoises have it too. It’s an organ with lots of oils and fats that is believed to be important during echolocation. The melon of a beluga whale is unique: by blowing air around its sinuses, a beluga whale can change the shape of its melon, which may be used in specialized under-ice echolocation.

The beluga whale is referred to as a sea canary, because of its high-pitched song. Individuals use squeaks, clucks and whistles to communicate with each other. Belugas are a very social species, and live together in groups called pods. When they move into bays, estuaries, and rivers during the summer they have been known to congregate in the thousands. Pods aren’t permanent though—belugas switch social groups frequently, sometimes moving hundreds of miles to join another group.

Beluga whales are smart and playful, and like to spit water at other whales or their keepers in aquariums. They’re the only whale species that’s commonly kept in aquariums, though captive breeding programs haven’t been successful.

Worldwide, beluga whales are ranked as near threatened by the IUCN. A subpopulation in the Cook Inlet in Alaska is listed as critically endangered. They suffer from pollution, especially in the rivers and estuaries they spend their summers in—there have been incidents of cancer in beluga whales linked to pollution in the St. Lawrence River. If we want these unique whales to be around in the future, we have to keep their environment safe and clean.


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If You Could be Any Ocean Animal...

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Have you ever dreamed of being a dolphin? Or maybe an anglerfish, octopus, or sea turtle?

Exploring the oceans from one of these animals points of view would be an exciting (and eye opening) experience.

So what marine animal would you be if you had the chance to be any creature in the ocean? We posed this question to our Ocean Heroes finalists, and here’s what they had to say. See if you can match their responses to the pictures above (answers at the bottom of this post)!

Michele Hunter – Harbor seal

Hardy Jones – Sperm whale

Kristofor Lofgren – Mako shark

Dave Rauschkolb – Porpoise

Richard Steiner – Polar bear (I like the odds and the challenge they face)

Donald Voss – Humpback whale

Sara Brenes – Tiger Shark

Calvineers – Blue whale

Sam Harris – Tiger Shark

James Hemphill – Hawksbill Sea Turtle (I have always been amazed at all the colors on its shell and how gracefully and peacefully it swims)

Teakahla WhiteCloud – Dolphin

Make sure to vote for your favorite Ocean Heroes, open from now until July 11th. Stay tuned to learn more about our finalists!

Photo Credits (clockwise from top left): Sperm Whale: Oceana/Juan Cuentos, Tiger Shark: Albert Kok, Harbor Seal: NOAA, Hawksbill Turtle: NOAA/Caroline Rogers, Porpoise: NOAA, Tiger Shark: Austin Gallagher, Humpback Whale: NOAA, Dolphin: Oceana/Eduardo Sorenson, Mako Shark: NOAA, Polar bear: NOAA, Blue Whale: NOAA (middle)


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Deploying 'Baseball-Bat Science' To Grasp Sub-Surface Oil

NOAA restoration officer Sean Meehan sets a "pompom" used to detect subsurface oil in Barataria Bay last week. Oceana/Suzannah Evans

The Gulf oil disaster reminds me of that old Donald Rumsfeld chestnut, the one about known-knowns and known-unknowns. With a massive, ongoing gushing oil spill, and an enormous ecosystem at risk, we're in the realm of the "known unknown" – we know that there is a huge amount of oil moving through the Gulf, but no one’s quite sure exactly where it is or where it’s going.

A group of federal agencies, including NOAA, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service are trying to push us into the "known known" category with teams sent out on what are essentially reconnaissance missions. Two months into the oil disaster, they’re still grappling to understand the impacts on shorelines, turtles, mammals and more.

Last Thursday, for the first time, NOAA allowed a small group of ocean conservation activists to shadow a crew working on discovering the location and severity of subsurface oil. I joined our senior campaign director, Jackie Savitz, along with scientists and campaigners from Ocean Conservancy and the Gulf Restoration Network in a couple of skiffs that tailed the NOAA crew for a few hours on the water just east of Grand Isle, La.

Before we embarked, NOAA restoration specialist Sean Meehan gave us the rundown as we stood on the dock in Jean Lafitte, about 25 miles south of New Orleans. A jovial guy, Meehan is an experienced marine researcher, but even he acknowledged the unique difficulty of locating subsurface oil.


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Trying To Understand The Scope Of The Oil Disaster

Today, senior campaign director Jackie Savitz and I went on the first boat trip for conservation groups to observe NOAA's attempt to understand the scope of the oil spill and how to respond to it. The crew we shadowed was trying to measure oil underneath the Gulf's surface. Along the way, we saw shrimpers turned oil skimmers, reddish oil on the water and sadly, a pod of dolphins including calves swimming and feeding in the oil-polluted waters.

In this video, Jackie summarizes a lot of what we saw. We'll have much more video and photos from the trip soon, so stay tuned. Thanks to NOAA for allowing us to come along and learn about this critical work.


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Jean-Michel Cousteau On Orcas

"When you take a wild cetacean (a whale or dolphin) and put it in a tank, its acoustic system is suddenly screwed up. Its sonar reverberates off of the concrete in its tank and, little by little, the animal becomes totally silenced. It’s like a person being blindfolded in a jail cell. The orcas are not used to borders or barriers, and that probably makes them very uncomfortable. Some of them don’t accept captivity and die, but others do and live like they are in prison."

That's Jean-Michael Cousteau reflecting on killer whales in the wake of last week's death of a trainer at Sea World. Cousteau is one of the world's experts on orcas and gives a fascinating, wide-ranging interview to the Santa Barbara Independent about whales and dolphins in the wild and in captivity, including a description of the enormous effort it took to rehabilitate and free Keiko, the orca that starred in "Free Willy." It's well worth a read.


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